The complete guide to exploring Greenwich, London

Planning a London getaway? Head to this nautical nook in the southeast of the capital for parkland walks, riverside pubs and centuries of history on the high seas.

By Connor McGovern
Published 10 Oct 2020, 06:07 BST
Londoners unwind on the sunny lawns outside the Old Royal Naval College. The 18th-century baroque complex, ...

Londoners unwind on the sunny lawns outside the Old Royal Naval College. The 18th-century baroque complex, designed by Christopher Wren, is the centrepiece of Maritime Greenwich — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photograph by Alamy

If a Londoner claims they live in the centre of the world, they’re not entirely wrong. For centuries, Greenwich was perceived by Western civilisation to be the nerve centre of global astronomy and maritime exploration. It gave its name to the Greenwich Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time, after all, from which all longitudes and times around the planet are measured, respectively. Just half an hour from central London, riverside Greenwich has a bustling, village-like vibe, with plenty of shops, pubs, markets and museums that make it a refreshing escape from the throngs of the city. Rest assured, if you do need to be back in town for the evening, there’s probably nowhere better to keep track of the time.

Glimpses of Greenwich’s seafaring past are everywhere, so start by getting your bearings at the iconic Old Royal Naval College, designed by none other than Sir Christopher Wren. The grand collection of 18th-century edifices commands a prime position beside the river and served as the Royal Hospital for Seamen before its turn as a training school for the British Navy — although the history of the site itself stretches even further back to when it was a favourite retreat for Tudor monarchs.

Today, the Chapel is well worth admiring for its maritime-inspired details, but the crowning glory is the Painted Hall, lauded as Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. It took artist Sir James Thornhill 19 years to finish this jaw-droppingly ornate room, which heaves with imagery of royalty, trade, mythology and naval prowess. A guide here is a must, as they’ll help to unpick all the fascinating symbolism that adorns this 18th-century wonder. It’s also here that Admiral Nelson lay in state after his repatriation from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (in a cask of brandy, no less).

Greenwich is home to the Prime Meridian — the line from which all longitudes and time zones around the planet are measured. At the Royal Observatory, visitors can straddle the 0° line, with one foot in the eastern and western hemispheres. 

Photograph by Getty Images

For a different view of the college, head across — or rather, under — the Thames via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, built in 1902, to reach Island Gardens. Turn around and look back on Greenwich across the water, sprawling along the riverside with all the imposing glory Wren intended it to exude.

Back in Greenwich, The Fan Museum (closed until 2021) is the jewel of London’s small museums circuit: set in a Georgian townhouse, it celebrates the history of the handheld accessory — and the pretty Orangery cafe alone is well worth a detour. The grand National Maritime Museum, meanwhile, hosts an impressive roster of events and exhibitions throughout the year on naval history and astronomy. A highlight of the collection is Nelson’s Trafalgar Coat, as worn by the ill-fated admiral in the Battle of Trafalgar (there are even bloodstains on the left sleeve). Don’t miss the excellent gift shop before exiting straight into Greenwich Park.

One of London’s loveliest green spaces, Greenwich Park is criss-crossed by wooded walks and has a popular cafe and a boating lake. Don’t miss the Ranger’s House, a grand Palladian mansion that houses a sizeable collection of private art and overlooks the glorious Rose Garden. Another botanical highlight is Queen Elizabeth’s Oak — an ancient tree that was supposedly a favourite picnic spot of the Tudor queen. If you fancy a longer walk, stomp across Blackheath to the village of the same name, which bustles with cafes, bookshops and a handsome Victorian church.

Presiding magisterially over the park, however, is the Royal Observatory. Light pollution means the night sky isn’t quite as clear as it was in 1675 when the foundation stone was laid, but the Peter Harrison Planetarium (closed at the time of writing) lets budding astronauts zoom through the solar system via immersive cinema experiences. If you’ve the patience to wait your turn, it’s also possible to straddle the Prime Meridian up here, with one foot in each of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. At 1pm, keep an eye on the scarlet Time Ball atop the building — it rises at two minutes to the hour before falling at 1pm sharp. Still done today, it’s a ritual that was long relied-upon by boatmen on the Thames to accurately set their clocks.

Dating back to 1869, the Cutty Sark was one of the world's fastest tea clippers. It's now a first-class attraction, where visitors can admire the boat's restored hull from underneath. 

Photograph by Getty Images

For another local green oasis, hop on the bus and make the short journey to Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, a pastoral foil to the glossy shops and restaurants of the nearby O2 Arena. With a patchwork of different habitats, it’s a haven for wildlife, including butterflies, herons, newts and bats.

Back in Greenwich Village, a root through Greenwich Market is a must — it’s chock-full of antiques, crafts, clothing and vintage knick-knacks every day of the week, and there’s a healthy presence of street food vendors, too, selling the likes of empanadas, vegan pizzas and even ramen burgers. If more retail therapy is on the cards, wander around the corner to admire the handsome (if touristy) maritime paraphernalia at Nauticalia, lose yourself in antique maps and fine art at the Warwick Leadlay Gallery, browse vintage threads at 360 Degrees-Vintage or pick up some bargain reads at Greenwich Book Time. Whatever you do, make sure to stop by Paul Rhodes Bakery for what might be the best Danish pastries this side of Copenhagen (if they haven’t all been snapped up, of course).

No visit to Greenwich would be complete with exploring the Cutty Sark. After a blaze in 2007, the famous clipper reopened in 2012, having been fully restored as a first-rate family attraction with interactive and informative exhibits recounting its colourful past.

You’ll no doubt be in need of a drink after taking in all that history, so head to the ship’s namesake pub downstream for a Thames-side pint. Greenwich has no shortage of pubs to while away an afternoon: try the flowery beer garden at the Plume Of Feathers, tucked in beside the park, or the Trafalgar Tavern, which comes with hard-to-beat views of the river from its bay windows. The Pelton Arms, meanwhile, is a classic London boozer in both decor and spirit — there’s a whiff of Only Fools and Horses about it, which earned it a starring role in the sitcom’s spin off, Rock & Chips. Expect a wicked sense of humour to boot, exhibited in legendary pub quizzes and live music nights.

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